Bruce Cumings

Bruce Cumings (born September 5, 1943) is an American historian of East Asia, professor, lecturer and author. He is the Gustavus F. and Ann M. Swift Distinguished Service Professor in History, and the former chair of the history department at the University of Chicago. He specializes in modern Korean history and contemporary international relations.

In May 2007, Cumings was the first recipient of the Kim Dae Jung Academic Award for Outstanding Achievements and Scholarly Contributions to Democracy, Human Rights and Peace granted by South Korea. The award is named in honor of 2000 Nobel Peace Prize winner and former President of South Korea Kim Dae Jung. The award recognizes Cumings for his "outstanding scholarship, and engaged public activity regarding human rights and democratization during the decades of dictatorship in Korea, and after the dictatorship ended in 1987."

Cumings' Origins of the Korean War, Vol. 1 (1980) won the John K. Fairbank Prize of the American Historical Association, and his Origins of the Korean War, Vol. 2 (1991) won the Quincy Wright Book Award of the International Studies Association.[1]

Cumings was born in Rochester, New York, on September 5, 1943. He was raised in Iowa and Ohio, where his father, Edgar C. Cumings, was a college administrator.[2] He worked summers for five years, three of them at the Republic Steel plant in Cleveland, to put himself through Denison University, with further help from a baseball scholarship. He graduated with a degree in Psychology in 1965, then served in the Peace Corps in Korea in 1967–68 before taking an M.A. at Indiana University. He then earned a Ph.D. in Political Science from Columbia University in 1975. He taught at Swarthmore College, University of Washington, Northwestern University, and University of Chicago. In 1999 he was elected Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences.[3]

He is married to Meredith Jung-En Woo, the president of Sweet Briar College and former Dean of Arts & Sciences at the University of Virginia. They had two sons; additionally, Cumings has a daughter from his first marriage.

Cumings joined the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars at Columbia after Mark Selden formed a chapter there,[4] and published extensively in its journal, Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, where his writings ranged from the early history of the Korean resistance movement against Japan to the intertwining of US academia with US intelligence agencies.[5] His research focus is on 20th century international history, United States and East Asia relations, East Asian political economy, modern Korean history, and American foreign relations. He is interested in the "multiplicity of ways that conceptions, metaphors and discourses are related to political economy and material forms of production", and to relations between "East and West".[6]

Cumings' scholarship has gone deeper than any other writing in English with respect to the circumstances surrounding the outbreak of the Korean War, and pre-1990 documents which allowed him to draw lines of culpability of various actors for the tragedy of the Korean War. Cumings writes that:

The Korean War did not begin on June 25, 1950, much special pleading and argument to the contrary. If it did not begin then, Kim II Sung could not have "started" it then, either, but only at some earlier point. As we search backward for that point, we slowly grope toward the truth that civil wars do not start: they come. They originate in multiple causes, with blame enough to go around for everyone—and blame enough to include Americans who thoughtlessly divided Korea and then reestablished the colonial government machinery and the Koreans who served it. How many Koreans might still be alive had not that happened? Blame enough to include a Soviet Union likewise unconcerned with Korea's ancient integrity and determined to "build socialism" whether Koreans wanted their kind of system or not. How many Koreans might still be alive had that not happened? And then, as we peer inside Korea to inquire about Korean actions that might have avoided national division and fratricidal conflict, we get a long list indeed.[7]

Cumings has not confined himself purely to the study of modern Korea and has written broadly about East Asia and even about American western expansion in book form. He wrote , which seeks to understand the industrialization of Japan, both Koreas, Taiwan, and parts of China, and the ways that scholars and political leaders have viewed that development.[8]

Industrial Behemoth: The Northeast Asian Political Economy in the 20th Century

Cumings writes in his book North Korea: Another Country: "I have no sympathy for the North, which is the author of most of its own troubles," but he alludes to the "significant responsibility that all Americans share for the garrison state that emerged on the ashes of our truly terrible destruction of the North half a century ago."

In a talk given at the University of Chicago in 2003, Cumings declared that the US had "occupied" South Korea for 58 years. In 1945, he explained, Chinese and Soviet armies were in the north of Korea, Americans in the south. The Soviets withdrew in 1948, followed by the Chinese in 1958, but US troops remained in South Korea, and in the event of war, the US commander would control the South Korean Army. He disputed the contention that North Korea had cheated on the October 1994 Agreed Framework.[9]

In 2003, the University of Chicago awarded Cumings for "Excellence in Graduate Teaching." Four years later, he was awarded the Kim Dae Jung Prize for "Scholarly Contributions to Democracy, Human Rights, and Peace."[10] Cumings has been described as "the left's leading scholar of Korean history." [11] scholar Kathryn Weathersby wrote that Cumings’ two-volume study of the origins of the Korean War was the "most important revisionist account" in which Cumings provides an interpretation of the war in which "the question remains open whether it was in fact the DPRK or the ROK that initiated the military action on 25 June 1950."[12]

The University of Georgia historian William W. Stueck does not find that account to be convincing but acknowledges that Cumings succeeds in exploring aspects of the Korean War that have lacked analysis in traditionalist accounts. Stueck notes that Cumings published more than a generation after the start of the war and that his arguments "challenged the views that the war was largely international in nature and that the American participation in it was – with at least one prominent exception – defensive and wise.”[13] The historian Allan R. Millett argued that the work's "eagerness to cast American officials and policy in the worst possible light, however, often leads him to confuse chronological cause and effect and to leap to judgments that cannot be supported by the documentation he cites or ignores."[14] Cumings himself has rejected the "revisionist" label.[15] Matt Gordon in Socialist Review praised Cumings' North Korea: Another Country (2003) as a "good read... for an introduction to this member of 'the axis of evil', especially given the lack of books on the subject which aren't hysterical denunciations from the U.S. right or hymns of praise from Stalinists."[16] Reviewing The Korean War (2010), William Stueck wrote, "Cumings displays a limited grasp of sources that have emerged since he published his second volume on the war's origins in 1990" and that readers "wanting an up-to-date account of the war in all its complexity should look elsewhere ."[17]